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Germans began voting on Sunday in a landmark election that will produce a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The longtime leader isn’t running for the first time since 2002, leaving the field wide open in what pollsters say has become the most unpredictable election since Ms. Merkel first became chancellor 16 years ago.

Whatever the outcome, polls show that no party is close to having an outright majority. This means that for the first time since the end of World War II, Germany will likely be ruled by a three-party coalition, the latest step in a decadeslong process of political fragmentation.

Negotiations to form a government will most likely take months, during which time Ms. Merkel and her government will remain in power in a caretaker capacity.

A survey by the Forsa polling group published Friday showed the center-left Social Democrats ahead with 25% of voting intentions, three points ahead of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives.

Over 26% of voters will either abstain or are unsure how to vote, Forsa said; this group includes more conservatives than left-leaning voters, meaning that a last-minute decision on behalf of some of them could tip the scale for Ms. Merkel’s ailing bloc.

Based on current polling, Social Democratic Party candidate Olaf Scholz could emerge as potential chancellor if he manages to put together a coalition. Mr. Scholz is currently serving as finance minister in Ms. Merkel’s government with his party acting as a junior partner.

Mr. Scholz and his advisers have indicated that they would opt for an alliance with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party. Another possible option would be a coalition with the Greens and the Left party, which would mean a significant tilt to the left.

The conservative bloc led by Armin Laschet, chairman of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has lost popularity throughout the campaign and looks certain to achieve its worst result on record. The previous low point for the conservatives was at the 2017 election, when they claimed over 32% of the vote.

Josef Ramsbacher, a 60-year-old neurosurgeon in Berlin, said he had voted three times for Ms. Merkel’s CDU but had shifted to the FDP this time because she was no longer on the ticket.

“There’s the big Angela and surrounding Angela there’s nothing. They [the CDU] have no young people, they have no innovation, they have nothing. I think they have to go to the opposition," Mr. Ramsbacher said.

Ulrich Syhre, a 30-year-old bartender, said he voted for the Left because he wants the conservatives to leave government. “We need different taxation policies and better climate policies," he said.

If the coalition talks extend beyond Dec. 17, Ms. Merkel will have surpassed her former mentor Helmut Kohl as the longest-serving German chancellor in the modern era.

Even seasoned political watchers, such as David Kayat, the owner of Capriccio, a Berlin restaurant frequented by the political establishment including Ms. Merkel and three of her predecessors, have struggled to predict the Sunday results.

Mr. Kayat, who is known as somewhat of an election oracle among conservative circles for successfully betting on election outcomes since 1981, said this is the hardest election to call—and blames the conservatives’ woes on Mr. Laschet.

“A strong fire leaves only ashes," he said in reference to Ms. Merkel’s leadership that left no popular successor behind. Yet Mr. Kayat expects that many voters who are undecided because they have been underwhelmed with Mr. Laschet’s performance will eventually vote conservative on Sunday to prevent a swing to the left.

“When you don’t have horses left, you have to pick a donkey," he said.

 

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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